Innovation is chaotic.  We cannot expect to control its progress like a traditional project.  

Project leaders assume they are in control, or lacking that, that at least control is possible if enough effort is applied to the task.  Traditional project management assumes that work can be scoped, planned, and controlled.

Innovation doesn’t … can’t … work this way.  At a fundamental level, original creations are defined by: 

Fuzzy Scope – Original creativity obscures the future.  At the beginning of work (and often far into the effort) there is no clear understanding  of the road ahead or the final destination. 

Tangled Interactions – The myriad interactions of Complex enterprise solutions produce feedback loops of change that cannot be mapped out ahead of time.   Change spreads throughout the project.  

Unexpected Sensitivity – When fundamental aspects of a project are already defined (as they are with enhancement to the status quo or a best practice package solution) then local changes tends to stay local.  However, when many aspects of the system are in creative flux, small revisions can trigger storms of change across the entire project.

There is an entire field of mathematics that describes systems like this … Chaos Theory.   

This “Chaos” does not mean disordered … a teenager’s messy bedroom.   Rather, it is a system with order and direction … but whose future behavior CANNOT be predicted based on present knowledge.   Weather is the classic chaotic system.  During the summer, you know temperatures will be warm, but it is truly impossible to predict whether it will rain on Saturday at 2:00 based on Monday’s data.

Tangles of non-linear interactions make it impossible to squeeze uncertainty and variability out of mathematically chaotic systems.    So we must learn to:

Embrace Uncertainty – Plan with understanding that it is not possible to know or define the future with any meaningful precision.

Learn Along The Way – Consciously incorporate learning and revision into the project management process. 

Adapt Our Actions – Adapt with agility to new problems.  Expect to confront unexpected problems and be adept at resolving them in line with other project work.

This flies in the face of what program managers and their sponsors expect … no, demand … from their world, but these are dominant features of original cross enterprise innovation. 


Chaotic innovation cannot be managed into docile compliance with a plan. 

Good Reads 

Chaos – The Making of a New Science , James Gleick

Brainstorming Questions

  • Are we assuming we know more / control more than we do?
  • Are we beating people up (project managers, team members, users) for being unable to predict and control a fundamentally chaotic system?
  • How do we learn about our chaotic system?  How do we develop an understanding of behaviors without being able to explicitly analyze pieces in isolation?
  • How do we identify and react to changes  that we cannot predict?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>